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Soldier suicides in Iraq downplayed

WASHINGTON -- The suicide rate among American soldiers in Iraq is much higher than for the Army as a whole, but officials said yesterday that mental health specialists have concluded there is no crisis.

A team of mental health experts visited soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait last year, following an alarming jump in July in the number of suicides, and after months of deliberation have presented Army leaders with a series of recommendations on ways that mental stress among soldiers can be handled better.

The Army planned to announce the team's findings and recommendations as early as today.

There were at least 24 suicides among US soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait last year, according to the Army's count. That number may increase because the circumstances of some other deaths are still in doubt. That equates to a suicide rate of 17.3 per 100,000 soldiers, compared with a rate of 12.8 for the Army as a whole in 2003 and an average rate of 11.9 for the Army during the 1995-2002 period, according to officials familiar with the study. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

The 24 suicides do not include soldiers who killed themselves after returning home.

The overall US civilian suicide rate during 2001 was 10.7 per 100,000, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The US civilian rate for the 18-34 age group, which is the age range of most soldiers, is 21.5 per 100,000.

The common threads that investigators found in the circumstances of the 24 soldiers who committed suicide were personal financial problems, failed personal relationships, and legal problems, officials said.

They also found -- as have previous Army probes of increases in the suicide rate during the 1990s -- that soldiers tend to avoid seeking help with stress or other mental health problems for fear of being stigmatized.

The team of Army mental health specialists surveyed about 750 soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait between August and October and found that while stress was an issue, as might be expected in a combat zone, 77 percent described their stress as mild or minimal. Seven percent reported severe stress.

About 80 percent of those surveyed had been engaged in combat since their arrival in Iraq.

It is highly unusual for the Army to send a mental health assessment group to a war zone, but it acted after five soldiers committed suicide in July alone. That turned out to be a statistical spike because the number of suicides after July leveled off at about two per month.

July was a particularly difficult month for soldiers in Iraq. The combat phase of the war had ended in May, and many soldiers thought the conflict was ending, but then an Iraqi insurgency took hold in June and July. Soldiers were being killed almost daily by roadside bombs and snipers.

The summer heat, combined with sometimes primitive living conditions for soldiers, added to the stress level.

Among the team's recommendations:

* Refocus training to improve the "buddy" system in which soldiers watch out for each other's well-being. The training would be aimed at allowing soldiers to more readily recognize signs of stress.

* Place more psychiatrists and other mental health professionals in Iraq and Kuwait to make help more accessible and prevent soldiers in the early stages of mental crisis from becoming suicidal.

Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told reporters in January that of more than 10,000 troops medically evacuated from Iraq, between 300 and 400 were sent outside the country for treatment of mental health problems.

The military prefers to treat mental health problems such as depression by keeping troops in their regular duties while they get counseling and possibly medication, Winkenwerder said. Less than 1 percent of the troops in Iraq are treated for mental issues during an average week, he said.

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